Got a call from lunch pal Bill Bronston, who’s wild about the Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant T.M. Noodle. “They know how to handle the cuisine,” he assured. “Some cooks beat it up.”
The retired physician is the impassioned founder and CEO of Tower of Youth, whose goal is to “organize teens to manufacture culture, ideas, relationships and community through digital media and the arts,” he said. Over the past decade, Bill has been responsible for persuading media-technology manufacturers to donate a few million dollars’ worth of hardware and software to regional teachers and students.
As we waited outside the restaurant for Bill’s significant other, retired travel agent Lisa Levering, I had a vague sense of deja vu. Then we noticed a review taped to the inside of the window. Then we noticed the byline – my own, from January 2005. So many restaurants, so little memory...
But things turned out OK, as we soon learned that husband-wife owners Hung and Thu Nguyen bought the place 3 1/2 years ago, remodeled it and created a new menu, but kept the name.
T.M. Noodle occupies a small storefront in the Carmichael Plaza shopping center, where Fair Oaks Boulevard intersects with (or turns into) Manzanita Avenue. Cypress Avenue is also involved, but the signage is confused. Look for the Safeway anchor store as a landmark.
We sat in a big booth and noticed the napkins are cloth and the small room is subtlety charming. The menu shows 107 items in 11 categories. With Hung as the only cook and Thu in the front of the house, how do they do that? “Quick, quick, quick!” Thu replied with a smile.
As we waited, Bill and Lisa mentioned they had visited Vietnam three times over recent years. They must have a deep understanding of the cuisine, then. “That’s why we come here so often,” Lisa said.
Dishes began to arrive. The first thing we remarked on was the freshness of the produce. The anise basil, cilantro, mint, bean sprouts and lettuce looked like they’d come straight out of a garden minutes ago.
“Banh xeo” is a traditional Vietnamese fried crepe made from rice flour and colored with yellow turmeric powder (No. 7), similar in concept to the Korean seafood pancake “hae mul pa jeon.” Ours was crisp and light, filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, and made silken with coconut milk. We added cilantro and mint, a splash of fish sauce and a squirt of Sriracha chili sauce. Gone in 60 seconds.
Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, is fragrant beef-based (usually) stock chunky with various meats. T.M. Noodle offers 16 varieties. Ours held rice noodles, sliced beef and meatballs, with slices of raw onion floating on top. We added cilantro, basil and mint, bean sprouts, jalapeño coins and a squeeze of lime (No. 12). We’ve had more tender beef and tastier meatballs in pho, but the broth was sublime, a perfect warmer on a cold day.
Next, tender chunks of teriyaki-marinated chicken had been skewered and char-grilled, matched with crunchy fried shrimp and fluffy white rice, with slices of tomato, crisp cucumber and piquant pickled carrot (No. 104). At meal’s end, we wondered: Was it the second best dish on the table, or the third? Everything was so seriously flavorful, a ranking was hard to gauge.
The chicken was followed by Lisa’s go-to, char-broiled pork and ground peanuts over vermicelli, a familiar item in Vietnamese restaurants (No. 52). Lisa demonstrated how she handles it: First, she shreds cilantro, mint and basil into the bowl, then “drenches it” with fish sauce, mixes it all up and eats it like a salad. We shared.
We finally got to Bill’s own go-to, char-broiled lemongrass beef (No. 69). It went like this: Soak a stiff round of rice paper in hot water until it turns soft. Using it as a tortilla, layer on strips of beef, noodles, greens, ground peanuts, peanut-hoisin sauce, Sriracha, fish sauce and anything else handy, wrap it up and eat it like a burrito. “It’s hands-on, and there are so many ways you can aesthetically blend the flavors,” he said.
Fifteen vegetarian dishes join the lineup, served with steamed jasmine rice. One extreme deal is the special lunch menu for $9. It includes egg fried rice, vegetable chow mein, an egg roll, a 12-ounce cup of wonton soup and a choice of seven entrees.
Such a customer-friendly price-to-portion ratio is rare in our travels ($5 to $11, with one seafood-based dish at $17). Factor in the quality of the ingredients, and you’ve got a bargain. Catch it while you can.
Steak plus bread equals a handful
We’ve written about Adamo’s Kitchen a couple of times. First for its four-star chicken wings cooked “sous vide” and then grilled to order ($6), again for its creamy beef-pork meatballs nestled in soft-firm polenta and topped with marinara and basil ($10).
We have to give the hip-casual place another ride, this one for its grilled hanger steak sandwich – strips of moist, smoky steak topped with peppery arugula, pickled red onion, salsa verde and aioli, all meeting inside a soft-chewy deli roll from Acme Bakery in Berkeley ($13.50). We skipped the accompanying salad and went for a bowl of silken butternut squash soup, slightly afire with powdered chilies and cracked black pepper.
Where: 4110 Manzanita Ave., Carmichael
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; special lunch menu served 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Food: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Ambiance: ☆ ☆1/2
How much: $-$$